Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is an honest and hilarious coming-of-age story about a mother and daughter, about being loved and wanting to be liked, and about rejecting and accepting who you are.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan, is in her senior year at an all-girls Catholic high school. Lady Bird is trying to get into a college in New York (against her mom’s wishes), trying to navigate her love life, find herself, and find some sort of stable ground in her relationship with her mom.
The strongest element of this movie is its honesty. Any mother who’s fought with her daughter or vise versa is sure to recognize themselves in the relationship between Lady Bird and her mom. Lady Bird’s mom, Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf, is a nurse at a psychiatric ward constantly working double shifts to support her family and pay for Lady Bird’s Catholic school. Lady Bird wants to have more money and freedom than her mom knows how to give her. So, they love each other, but they fight. Even in moments that aren’t as relatable in action, like Lady Bird and her best friend snacking on unconsecrated communion bread and talking about sex, the emotion is instantly recognizable.
Even if someone goes into this movie knowing absolutely nothing, it quickly becomes clear that this story is a deeply personal one. Gerwig, a Sacramento native, wanted to use her hometown as the backdrop for her semi-autobiographical film. Within the first few minutes the viewer knows the specific setting of Sacramento in 2002, and gets the sense that this is for a reason. The city is one of many things about Lady Bird’s life (like her given name) that she’s rejected in an attempt to redefine herself. The setting is a post-9/11 world in all the ways that would matter to a Sacramento teenager who wants to go to New York. Gerwig wrote what she knew in order to produce an authentic fully formed setting for a richer story.
The movie feels more like a year remembered rather than a year unfolding, though there are no flashforwards or flashbacks. The movie jumps from scene to scene a lot. We see Lady Bird in math class, snippets of warm-up games before rehearsal, then Lady Bird having a conversation after a musical rehearsal, then a school dance. The audience has no idea if these events happened hours or days apart, but they read as a highlight reel of Lady Bird’s senior year. Covering the big and small moments that stood out or mattered for some reason and skipping over the rest. This adds to the emotional authenticity of the film. We don’t remember every moment of high school, but we do remember some math grades we wanted to change, the awkward flirting with our musical co-star, and definitely the dance where we got our first kiss.
The movie couldn’t have been successful without performances to match the emotion, and Ronan and Metcalf really delivered. The mother-daughter relationship was the emotional center of the film. Without Ronan and Metcalf’s ability to realistically act out Lady Bird and her mother going from crying together over a “Grapes of Wrath” audiobook to arguing, and Lady Bird jumping out of a moving car a few minutes later in a scene which opens the movie, and all the other emotional ups and downs, the story would’ve fallen flat. Though Ronan and Metcalf are the stars, every supporting actor fulfilled his/her role seamlessly, never letting the emotion of this movie fall flat.
This movie has many common coming-of-age story elements: the sweet, seemingly-perfect first boyfriend, the bass player, better-in-theory second boyfriend, the protagonist abandoning her best friend to hang with cooler kids, the overworked nurse mom, the perpetual nice guy dad, the older sibling that mom is softer toward. However, it doesn’t feel like a tired story. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s obvious that this is Gerwig’s own story in many ways, or the way the movie embraced honest emotion throughout the film and didn’t suspend it in order for bigger laughs. Either way it works.
“Lady Bird” is rated R. It is currently showing at the Alamo Drafthouse in El Paso.